Dench, Smith Play Spicy Dames

The word “legend” is randomly kicked around so much these days that it seems to apply to just about everyone who has lived long enough to win an Oscar, sell a million rock CD’s, headline at Carnegie Hall or survive at least one war. With so many phony legends jockeying for applause, it’s hard to recognize the real deal when we see one. So sound the trumpets for Ladies in Lavender. In this radiant, heartwarming movie (a rarity in itself these days), two legendary stars share the screen, and attention must be paid. If Judi Dench and Maggie Smith-two royal Dames who absolutely, positively nobody anywhere resembles-haven’t earned the status reserved for genuine legends of the British Empire, then the Prince of Wales is a King Charles spaniel.

Ladies in Lavender, carefully written and superbly directed by the actor Charles Dance, is a film of unusual elegance and artistry, set in the years leading up to World War II, about two elderly sisters whose comfortable but dull lives on the coast of Cornwall are interrupted by a shipwreck that sweeps overboard one sole survivor-a mysterious young man who washes up on the beach below their cottage. Awkwardly nursing their guest back to health with the aid of their fat, crusty housekeeper (Miriam Margolyes), the intrusion of life from the outside world in the form of a handsome, smiling stranger with a broken ankle who speaks only Polish and German opens old wounds, revives old resentments and rekindles rivalries long resigned to mothballs. For Janet (Dame Maggie Smith), the logical, pragmatic one who was briefly married as a young woman to a man who died in World War I, the boy symbolizes the son she never had. But the spinsterish and childlike Ursula (Dame Judi Dench) develops an affection for the lad that is far from maternal. Doting on his every need, placing a flower on his breakfast tray, teaching him English, she makes him the surrogate of everything she never had-brother, lover and the Prince Charming she has waited for all of her life to rescue her from her prison tower.

As their castaway is slowly welcomed by the local farmers and fishermen who are suspicious of anyone from outside the village, the sisters overcome the language barriers and learn that their visitor is a Polish Jew named Andrea (played with wonderful honesty and naturalism by the appealing German actor Daniel Brühl, who captivated audiences last year in Goodbye Lenin). Andrea was escaping the Nazi anti-Semitism of Krakow on a ship bound for New York when he was washed into the sea. More thrilling still, he is an accomplished violinist. Janet and Ursula now have a fresh drive in their efforts to make Andrea a permanent part of their little family; they will encourage his talent and fuel him with the ambition to make a career. But their dreams are short-circuited by a vacationing artist (Natascha McElhone) whose brother is a famous musician with important connections on the concert stage. Before the summer ends, Andrea is abruptly whisked away to London with no time to say goodbye, leaving the old women desperate with worry. The loss is unsettling for Janet but devastating to Ursula, and as the season turns to autumn and the coastal chill settles in on the Cornish coast, the events that wedged the two women apart also bring them closer together when the days shorten and the nights grow long. Then, in a finale that will quicken your pulse and touch your heartstrings with a miraculous lack of sentimental manipulation, Andrea makes his debut on the BBC. For once, the war news of storm clouds over Europe is replaced by the beauty of music. Janet and Ursula invite the whole village to their house to listen to the broadcast. But in a momentary decision of rare impulsiveness, they travel to London instead to burst with pride in person at the concert hall. For a moment, Andrea is reunited with the little family that saved his life, but the tears of gratitude and joy quickly fade as he is swept away by the famous conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. Ursula and Janet walk away, less lonely than before, having learned at last the importance of letting go, and disappear in the throng of Andrea’s admirers, to begin the next chapter in a continuing story that has found new value.

Lush, sun-dappled photography by the distinguished cinematographer Peter Biziou, the honesty of village life, the human elements that embellish maps of experience in the faces of the actors, a multitude of authentic period details, and gorgeous music by Nigel Hess and the Royal Philharmonic, with violin solos by the internationally acclaimed Joshua Bell, add up to an idyllic, impeccable, enriching and amazing cinematic experience. Above all, there is the rapture of watching the energy and concentration of two of the world’s most accomplished actors. The passion in their glances, exchanges and closeness-like two bookends on a library shelf-is exhilarating. Watching them thrust and parry and feed each other with crumpets of the English language the way it should be spoken has an effect I can only call enriching. To find this many exemplary elements in one movie in 2005 is a miracle. Get to Ladies in Lavender fast.

In a time of micro-minute trends, I’m not naïve enough to suggest that a movie graced by Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith might pave the way for a future where timeless legends take precedence over fly-by freaks, but it sure is transforming to have them around for a visit, no matter how brief.

Lovely Ladies

Spring will be a little late this year. In fact, we might just skip the whole thing and move right into summer. To that end, a lovely flotilla of female singers has arrived, bringing their own heat. Barbara Cook has moved into the august throne room at the Carlyle that Bobby Short used to call home, and from now through May 27 she’s making the kind of music the recently departed king of cabaret would have been proud to share. Since Barbara recently lost her own longtime pal, arranger, musical conductor and pianist, Wally Harper, this excursion at the Cafe Carlyle, appropriately called Tribute, marks a new page for her, too, and from the top-rung celebrities she’s attracting, it looks like everyone is dropping by to help her turn it. Tribute showcases a new Barbara Cook-softer, more subdued, poetically etching her way through a new program of songs she’s never sung before. The room and the mood seem perfect for a celebration of Bobby Short with a thrilling, beautifully modulated “Bojangles of Harlem” and a sensual “Nashville Nightingale”-two songs she would never have touched in the past. And her own homage to the songwriting talents of Wally Harper reveal a marvelous gem he wrote with David Zippel called “Another Mr. Right Left” that makes me wonder why she hid them in her piano bench for so many years. Her voice of Tiffany gold is unlike anything on the planet, but sunny (“I’ve Got the World on a String”) or torchy (“Make the Man Love Me”), the diversity of it in this song recital is doubly mesmerizing. Example: Singing two gorgeous songs that Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields wrote for men in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she phrases them differently, in a softer and more reflective mood than usual. It’s Actors Studio phrasing. It’s a different can of peas. But her new pianist, Michael Kosarin, is a peach. His chords give her ample room to snuggle in. Barbara Cook doesn’t need a shoulder to lean on. She’s her own muse, her own vocal coach, and every time she sings, the rest of us learn something. Hitchhike, power-walk or cab it to the Carlyle immediately, and get to know what perfection is.

Nobody in what Jimmy Durante used to call “the show business” is more beloved than the Broadway gypsy. Donna McKechnie is one of the most popular, and in Gypsy in My Soul, her aptly titled act at the chic new boîte on East 58 Street called Le Jazz Au Bar, she dances a little, sings a lot and spreads joy like marmalade. She ran away from home and arrived on the scene in 1959, when juicy, pre-Disney 42nd Street was Oz with garters (“Hookers and hustlers and pimps, oh my!” she croons), a new kid named Streisand was singing down in the Village, an unknown named Cy Coleman was playing in the piano bars uptown, Tito Puente held mambo contests at the Palladium, and you could buy a balcony seat to any show on Broadway for $1.50. This act is about her times, her songs, her shows and her dreams. Dramatic ballads requiring subtle lyric readings are not her forte, and the material doesn’t always fit the format. (One minute she’s doing all three voices on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” the Sondheim trio number she performed in Company; the next minute, in comes “But Not for Me” from nowhere.) But when she talks about her ups and downs as a dancer, recreates her Tony-winning role in A Chorus Line, stops the show with a great song like Ed Kleban’s “Better,” or tells affectionate but hilarious stories about working with Ann Miller in Follies, her passion triumphs. Her heart is as big as her love for the stage, and a swell time is had by all.

The big-band sound of Vegas in the good old days is always a welcome tonic, and Vegas ’58 … One More Time, the title of Keely Smith’s show at Feinstein’s at the Regency (through May 7), says it all. Wailin’, jivin’ and celebrating the 100th anniversary of the town where music, money and neon go together, the indefatigable Keely and her nine-piece orchestra are a workout without a gym. She’s so nonchalant and relaxed that on opening night, she already reached the tag of “Autumn Leaves” before she realized that she’d forgotten to take the chewing gum out of her mouth. From the old Louis Prima catalog to timeless arrangements by Billy May and Nelson Riddle, it’s one hour of midnight at the Sahara Hotel when Sinatra and the Rat Pack stood and cheered, and on the dust-kicking “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You,” the band stands up and rocks and sways from side to side like syncopated elephants. These are the sounds you hear coming out of every door on Bourbon Street. When Keely Smith comes to town, she doesn’t just polish the Apple. She gives you the whole cobbler.

On Oldboy

Finally, a word about Korea. A few weeks ago, in my broadside against the gory Korean movie schlockfest Oldboy, I apparently raised the hackles of several readers who objected to the way I mentioned the Korean film industry and the fermented Korean national dish called kimchi in the same sentence. I’m not an admirer of political correctness in first-person byline opinion writing, but that doesn’t make me a racist, so if I inadvertently offended anyone who misinterpreted my humor, I apologize. I like Koreans. In truth, I have probably spent more time in Korea than any of the irate letter-writers currently bombarding me. I even lived there for several months while making a movie called Inchon! with Laurence Olivier, Jacqueline Bisset, Ben Gazzara, Richard Roundtree and Toshiro Mifune. We had many happy times, admired the lush landscape and liked the friendly people. We all hated the kimchi.